A Tribute to David Graeber, by Christophe Petit

Having had the opportunity to know and talk regularly with my friend and mentor David Graeber for the past ten years or so, it seems to me that I would be ungrateful if I did not pay tribute to this great man who will remain an inexhaustible source of inspiration for me and for so many others.

I have been as little personal as possible in this testimony out of concern not to take advantage of David’s fame. However, this kind of testimony seems to me necessary to show that David’s conduct in his private life was at the ethical height of his ideals. All his life, he shone with a rare intensity to enlighten us with the purest of lights, that of justice. It is not the purpose of this homage to talk about the quality of his work because even if he considered me as one of the best specialists of his work, the time has not yet come to talk about his work which, in my opinion, should be read as an analysis of the myths used to justify the inequalities among men. With David, man may take advantage of the most analytical reason, but he remains mythological, too mythological. The time will come for the study of his work and it will then have to be analyzed in the light of his main influences, which are Mauss, Kropotkin, Marx, Bhaskar, Sahlins, Clastres, Leach, Turner, Hudson, Keen and more recently Veblen and his successors Fix, Nitzan and Bichler.

I would like to begin by mentioning two testimonials that appeared recently in the New York Review of Books. The testimony of David Wengrow, who is co-author of their upcoming book, is particularly informative about David’s future projects. This book, which promises to be colossal, was to be to a future trilogy what the Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings. John Jordan’s testimony is particularly moving for me because he talks about a weekend in Paris with David and his wife Nika at the height of the revolt of the yellow vests and because I was with them those days. David and his wife were sleeping at my place. Usually, when a person dies, we exaggerate by finding all the qualities of the world in him. The special thing about David is that it is (was, unfortunately) true. He really possessed all the qualities of the world to an exceptional degree: kindness, benevolence, humour, erudition, imagination, intelligence, energy, curiosity, etc. and quite frankly, I am not exaggerating when I say that. He is the sunniest being I have ever met and all the testimonies of those who have known him converge on this point. At the age of 59, he was still very young. It is perhaps the privilege of geniuses to never grow old and to remain joyful children playing on the beach and exploring the beach, this frontier between the land of the known and the ocean of the unknown. While most individuals fossilize with age and lose their flexibility of mind, I have absolute certainty that he was mowed down in the ascending phase of his genius. This is what makes his untimely death so tragic. People confuse talent with genius. Talent is common, genius is rare. Genius is not a greater quantity of talent. Genius and talent are qualitatively different. Talent is the enemy of genius. Talent is conservative, genius is revolutionary. While talent is a matter of memory and analytical intelligence, genius is a matter of life drive, of sublimation, i.e. imagination. The man of talent possesses exceptional memory and intelligence, while the man of genius possesses an extraordinary imagination. Talent, like the talent of the champion of chess is replaceable by the machine, genius is irreplaceable because it comes from the impulse of life that goes beyond calculation. The difference between talent and genius, which was theorized by Immanuel Kant before being taken up by other philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche or Alfred North Whitehead, is a conceptual difference that has been, in my opinion, totally confirmed by scientific research, since analytical talent and memory are effectively replaced by the machine. Artificial intelligence replaces talent, not genius. Most of the “great men” who “succeed” in their fields are men of talent, former good students who possess extraordinary memory and analytical intelligence. David had exceptional talent, but what is much rarer is that he possessed extraordinary genius. Talent does not bring anything new because it is analytical. Talent combines what already exists. The genius that is perhaps most found in individuals who are not academically competent is creative and synthetic imagination. It is usually revealed through a sense of humour. Genius creates novelty through the synthetic faculty of imagination, which is the essential faculty of the human being. As the philosopher Whitehead said, “the multiple becomes one and adds one”.  Imagination is creative because it synthesizes and exceeds what it synthesizes by sublimating, by creating novelty. Imagination is the essential faculty of man that allows him to persevere in his being and to become what he is through the synthesis of his intelligence, his will and his sensitivity. Intelligence accesses to information, will to time, sensitivity to space but only imagination can sometimes penetrate the essence of reality. Genius is the essence of the human being possessed to an exceptional degree. It is for this reason that David moved people so much as the extraordinary life drive of his imagination exploded in each of his works. David was a living firework. His creative life drive was producing something new on every page and it was known that with every article, with every page, with every book, something new was going to happen. What was extraordinary with David was that with every book of David, with every article of David, with every interview of David, new theoretical and political possibilities appeared. With David’s death, we lost, in my opinion, the greatest genius of our time, one of the lighthouses of humanity that illuminated not only new answers but also questions that no one had ever thought of. David was able to see what no one else could see. Talent always dies but genius never dies. David began anthropology as a child by translating Mayan hieroglyphics and it is now up to us to translate the hieroglyphics of the eternal ideas he engraved on the Great Pyramid of Humanity. One cannot understand the tragedy of David’s death if one does not understand that it is a human tragedy but also a tragedy for humanity, namely the untimely death of one of the greatest geniuses in the history of mankind.

Recently David was re-reading all Thorstein Veblen’s work that he was so close to and he was interested in the anarchist economic political theory of the book “Capital as Power” written by Jonathan Nitzan and Simon Bichler. He was going to read the work of Jean-Michel Servet and Christian Arnsperger. He had a lot of plans, even three days before his death. His life was devoted to helping others, through his work and his practice. I can testify to this personally. Like many people around the world, David helped me both personally and through his work. One must indeed measure the fact that his book “bullshit jobs” literally saved the lives of thousands and perhaps millions of people excommunicated by the religion of work in the world and who were precisely no longer recognized as “persons” because of the sacralization of work that he desacralized through this masterpiece. The conclusion of this book by the defence of unconditional income to encourage productive activities against the bureaucracy of managerial feudalism is implacable, mathematical. Thanks to his book on debt, a book influenced by the work of Michael Hudson, he placed money at the centre of human history, because the class struggle of long history becomes a class struggle for the appropriation of the means of production of money, which appropriation allows the capture of the means of production and services. The history of money is the history of debt. The capture of money by the private sector is always the main cause of privatization and the replacement of democracy by feudalism. With all due respect to Hegel, the history of the rational in and for itself is the history of money and not of the state. Without money, there is no market, no enterprise, and no state that exists only if taxes can be paid with money. The history of humanity is then that of a great overthrow of values, from the morality of the redemption of debts, of which Jesus, the Redeemer, and Solon, the creator of democracy, were the main figures, to the present morality of the categorical imperative of debt repayment. This book has opened unprecedented possibilities for debt cancellation and thus a return to real, non-formal democracy. In several articles, David announced the revolt of the caring class, of those who work to help human beings flourish, against those who work to help money flourish. His book on bureaucracy showed that we live in a world even more bureaucratic than the former USSR, where multinationals and states are working together to establish a feudal, financial and rentier bureaucracy that he called managerial feudalism, the world of tax havens and their servants, a world that oppresses the majority of humanity. Like one of his masters, Dostoyevsky, David was always on the side of the humiliated and the offended, the excluded. In this he was a true anarchist who rejected all forms of hierarchies between men as obstacles to equality between men and respected human beings as human beings and not as social or professional status. In this alone, he was an exception in a bureaucratic Kafkaesque world where the more society respects the rules, the less society respects the men. The more we know about David’s work, the more we become aware of his creative genius, of the multiple windows he opens in each page on other possible. There is an air of freedom in his work that circulates from one possible world to another. One can sense in his works a creative imagination that was still far from having reached its full power. His most beautiful works were still ahead of him, and I have absolutely no doubt that his work co-written with David Wengrow – of which we published an unpublished excerpt in the MAUSS magazine in homage to Marcel Mauss, another of his masters – will be his most brilliant work. This immensely ambitious work, entitled “The Dawn of Everything” will unfortunately be his twilight, but hopefully the dawn of his thought and influence. What is sad is that with the integration of the works of Veblen, Commons, Nitzan, Bichler, Fix and so many others, his next works would have been even better. His work was in his image, eternally young. We were to work together on a book devoted to Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy, which he was to preface. He also had to preface a work by another of his masters, Michael Hudson, which we recently translated with my friend Thibault Mirabel. In addition, my thesis, which he co-directed with Véronique Dutraive, was to deal with the financing of unconditional income through money creation, a subject that obsessed us both and which has been a regular topic of discussion for the past ten years. It was about getting out of the rentier capitalism of tax havens produced by the conjunction of digital technologies and the current monetary institution through a deep and democratic transformation of the monetary institution more adapted to our digital economy. It is difficult to bring new ideas into the debates and it seems to me that only he had the capacity to introduce such a radical idea and to justify it thanks to his erudition but above all thanks to his incredible capacity to make such an idea obvious. Indeed, geniuses like David can transform new complex ideas into simple common sense. Faithful to Bhaskar’s philosophy, David thought that humans do access to reality thanks to their imagination and he created social thought experiments like Albert Einstein created physical thought experiments. For the transcendental realist, truth is a mobile army of metaphors that signs a symbolic armistice, usually mathematical, with a fixed army of empirical facts. Faithful to Bhaskar’s relational philosophy, he was turned towards an ontology not of individualism or holism but of relationship. Faithful to Bhaskar’s transcendental realism, he was also turned towards a world of the possible – a world larger and more fundamental than the positivist world reduced only to actualized potentialities and their equations – and by our capacity to understand and bring out the best potentialities of this world of the possible thanks to the essential faculty of man which is his imagination. David has perhaps opened theoretical and political possibilities more than anyone else in our time. Despite his erudition, he was far removed from any academic scholastic. David’s death is an immense loss for all those who are interested in ideas and for all those who wish for a change in society that is not just a simple step backwards. Even if he was the total opposite of a guru and the sectarian spirit, he was for me as for many the North Star that allowed us to orient ourselves in the constellation of ideas of our time.

For the past few days, many of us in his entourage – I am thinking in particular of my close friends of David’s in the SPECTRE group (if you are interested, the acronym means “Secret Political Economic Consortium for the Total Redistribution of Everything”) – and in the world, waking up each morning with a broken heart and feeling like a revelation of Lamartine’s famous phrase: “you miss one single being and everything is depopulated”. And indeed, for David, we are such stuff as human relations are made on. We are people made of people. With his death, a part of me – like a part of all his relatives, friends or brothers and sisters in spirit – died. His wife Nika is in the process of creating a foundation for his spirit to survive through his works. It is our duty in the times to come to ensure that the flame of his genius that has illuminated our days with such a beautiful light never dies.